Logic and Mysticism: William Blake, Bertrand Russell, and Allen Ginsberg

The Way to Truth: The Lamb or the Tyger?

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The Ancient of Days over Bikini Atoll, where America exploded a massive hydrogen bomb in 1954. It was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. On witnessing the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of scientist Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

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Introduction: Blake and Bertrand Russell

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Entrance to the rooms Russell occupied as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he first heard the sound of Blake’s Tyger.

In the first volume of his autobiography, Nobel Prize laureate Bertrand Russell recalled being stopped dead in his tracks while trying to descend a staircase in Trinity College Cambridge by his friend Crompton reciting Blake’s poem The Tyger. He wrote:

One of my earliest memories of Crompton is of meeting him in the darkest part of a winding College staircase and his suddenly quoting, without any previous word, the whole of “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.” I had never, till that moment, heard of Blake, and the poem affected me so much that I came dizzy and had to lean against the wall.

The encounter with Blake’s Tyger seems to have made a lasting impression on the mathematician and philosopher. Russell returned to him again in his 1918 essay Mysticism and Logic, where he suggested that the search for truth could be reached both through hard science and pure speculation. In the essay Russell contrasts two “great men,” Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose “scientific impulse reigns quite unchecked,” and poet William Blake, in whom “a strong hostility to science co-exists with profound mystic insight.” It’s interesting that Russell chooses Blake for an example.

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Opening the Doors: William Blake, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation

Howl: The War of this World against Vision and Imagination

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Old New York

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Introduction: Blake & the Beats

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Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) in front of the opening lines of Howl, referencing Blake in its opening section

William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,

I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.

Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.

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Fearful Symmetry: Blake and the Symbolism of the Left Brain, by Iain McGilchrist

TygerTyger: The Predators, the Single Eye, and the Pyramids within our Heads

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Introduction: Symbols and Symptoms

In 2014, the psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist gave a remarkable talk on the art and symbolism of patients with schizophrenia or psychosis (‘Neuromania – Spiders, yes, but why cats?‘). The presentation was not only a fascinating insight into the nature of these conditions, and the implicit and intrinsic connections between symptoms and symbols, but also a profound exploration of the peculiar symbolism and imagery that more generally surrounds us in our supposedly hyper-rational cultures, and which artist and writer William Blake somehow understood and drew upon.

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William Blake on Self and Soul, by Laura Quinney

William Blake and the illusion of Selfhood

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Introduction: Blake the Radical Psychologist

It has always been clear that William Blake was both a political radical and a radical psychologist. The most illuminating interpretations of Blake— by Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Brian Wilkie, and Mary Lynn Johnson, to name a few— emphasize his subtlety and innovation in the understanding of human psychology.

This article addresses what Blake said about a specific aspect of psychology— a reflexive aspect, deeper and stranger in itself than thought and feeling— the subject’s experience of its own interiority. What is the self’s relation to itself?

Blake thought that under certain conditions, it was bound to be anxious and lonely. That is, he thought that if the self is identified with the main consciousness or “I,” especially the “I” as a center of rationality, it will feel solitary and insecure.

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